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Full of strikingly sensuous passages, both literary and musical, Magnificat's one-voice-per-part performance allows Palestrina's music to speak with clarity and intimacy—a carefully considered balance of poise and passion. No ordinary collection of motets, the Song of Songs sets the most sensual and openly erotic sections of the Old Testament which led Palestrina to employ ‘a style of music a little more lively than normally used in other sacred compositions'.
Moreover, the Song of Songs had a long history of being set to music; one of the most popular interpretations and the one proposed by Palestrina, was to see it as descriptive of ‘the divine love of Christ and his spouse, the soul’. It is also important to note that the explicit sensuality found in these texts is not dissimilar to that seen in sacred paintings and statues from the same period, for example Bernini’s much admired Ecstasy of Saint Theresa. Thus, it is apparent that these motets fit perfectly into the aesthetics of religious art in the Counter-Reformation period. It was unusual, however, to set these texts as a unified cycle and this is the only time in his career that Palestrina published such a collection, rather than gathering works composed separately over a period of time. Palestrina used exact quotes from the Old Testament, keeping the original order almost completely intact. It is also interesting that, musically, the collection can be divided into four parts, exploring the different modal areas available to sixteenth-century composers and that these four tonal areas coincide with the subdivisions of the text. This kind of detailed tonal and textual planning in a collection is extremely unusual and is further proof of the exceptional nature of this volume. These unifying techniques are exemplified in motets fifteen through eighteen; the first two open with nearly identical phrases (‘Surge, propera, amica mea’ and ‘Surge, amica mea’) which Palestrina sets with identical upward motions at ‘surge’ (‘rise’) graphically portraying the act of rising. ‘Surgam et circuibo’, the eighteenth, begins with a line similar to the opening of the fifteenth and sixteenth and closes with a musical and textual passage found in the preceding seventeenth motet, thus creating a large-scale structure. While much more could be said regarding the tonal architecture of this collection, it is particularly important to note the staggering level of forethought and design that Palestrina lavished on a collection of pieces which, for the most part, have no set liturgical use.
If not as part of the liturgy, where and when would these pieces be performed? Occasions for performances of non-liturgical pieces were not rare in late sixteenth-century Rome. From documentary evidence we know that motets were often performed for the Pope’s supper or entertainment, more as chamber music than as liturgical sacred music. On these occasions the choice of music would have been unfettered by liturgical requirements and a series of meditations on the love between Christ and the soul could have been perfectly appropriate fare. The present performance, with one voice to a part, is particularly suited to the possible function of these motets and also to their character.
The musical style of these motets is, as previously stated, often ‘more lively’ than most of Palestrina’s sacred compositions. To the modern ear, the stylistic differences may seem negligible. However, this was certainly not so for sixteenth-century ears, more attuned to the nuances of this music. At any rate, the volume is full of striking and strikingly sensuous passages. ‘Tota pulchra es’ for example, begins simply, but within a couple of measures the soprano line unfolds in one of the most gorgeous passages of the collection, graphically illustrating the words ‘you are wholly beautiful, my love’. ‘Vox dilecti mei’ opens with four of the five voices intoning the word ‘vox’ twice, the only occurrence of such an opening in the entire volume. In the preceding thirteen motets the opening is unfailingly imitative, which magnifies our surprise at the beginning of this piece.
Palestrina also employs more word painting than in most of his sacred music in order to musically depict the imagery within the text. At times, although writing in duple meter, he manages to give a triple, joyous feeling to the notes (for example at the words ‘exultabimus et laetabimur’ meaning ‘we shall rejoice’ in ‘Trahe me’). In other cases—most strikingly in the descending opening line of ‘Descendi in hortum’ (I went down to the orchard)—the melodic lines etch the text in our memory.
Another feature of these motets is their conciseness; Palestrina strives to divide the text so that the length of the individual motets is fairly constant and the narrative flow breaks at appropriate moments. The concise character of these works provides an interesting piece of foreshadowing; Palestrina’s later works were often composed in this style. In this case, the concision contributes to the feeling of contrast; the music moves quickly between sections, leading us through a series of changes (some subtle, some less so) that make us admire Palestrina’s compositional skills all the more.
To reduce this collection to a test of compositional skills, however, would be to miss one of the most important elements; the sheer beauty of Palestrina’s music. In ‘Vox dilecti mei’, after the striking opening, Palestrina sets the woman’s praises of her lover (or, allegorically, the soul’s happiness for the coming of Christ) in a joyful, very lively passage, illustrating the words ‘he comes leaping over the mountains, bounding over the hills’. Short, quick phrases keep the texture ever changing, until the final line, which sets the words ‘and my beloved speaks to me’ twice in simple homophony. The first occurrence of the phrase leaves out the soprano so that the effect is one of a sudden quiet, preparing us to hear the words of the beloved in the following motet. In this way, Palestrina sets up the musical contrast between this ending and the imitative, madrigalistic opening of the following ‘Surge, propera, amica’. It is obvious that Palestrina intended these motets to be performed as if they were a reading (although abridged) of the Song of Songs and this is the way they are presented in this recording. We could not separate them any more than we could separate the chapters of a book.
Ultimately, it is evident that Palestrina compositions offer more than the usual Renaissance flowery politeness. In the dedication he states ‘I do not doubt that Your Holiness will be satisfied by my effort and my intent, if less by the actual work.’ While there is no surviving record as to Pope Gregory’s thoughts on the collection, it is without doubt that the effort and care Palestrina put into writing this collection made it every bit fit for a Pope.
Giulio M Ongaro © 2001